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Baltimore County woman files lawsuit against landlord for evicting her during coronavirus pandemic

When Tia Hutchinson received an eviction warning from her apartment’s management company, Hendersen-Webb Inc., in May, she believed the company was giving her until June 15 to pay her balance or leave the Pebble Creek Apartments in Essex.

But the mother of two came home June 1 to find an empty apartment. An employee told her the apartment assumed she “vacated” the building. The employee also said Hutchinson and her children’s items were “put outside,” but the family hasn’t seen a trace of their possessions to this day.

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“It was just a shock to me,” said Hutchinson, 34, who’s currently living with her fiancé.

The expectant mother has now filed a lawsuit and is seeking more than $75,000 from the company to recoup the cost of her possessions, which include family photos, mementos and social security information for her and her children, ages 11 and 4.

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Cockeysville-based Hendersen-Webb and an attorney for the company did not respond to requests for comment.

In her lawsuit, filed last month, Hutchinson said she told Hendersen-Webb on May 18 she would pay the rent before the end of May. Hendersen-Webb initially only mentioned a late fee, but the company later said in a May 27 letter she had until June 15 to pay a portion of her $3,888 balance to avoid eviction, the lawsuit stated.

Hutchinson said she received the letter days after she began to move some of her items into her fiancé‘s home. After Hutchinson discovered the company cleaned out her home, she called the police and was told the company’s actions were illegal, the lawsuit stated.

In March, Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order halting evictions if renters can prove they’ve “suffered a substantial loss of income resulting from COVID-19” or the state-mandated closures following the outbreak. The order doesn’t freeze rent payments, however, and landlords still can charge late fees for missed payments.

Hogan’s order also prohibits eviction proceedings in courts while his emergency orders on public spaces and business closures remain in effect. Proceedings will continue, however, after Maryland’s District Court reopens and resumes hearings on non-emergency cases between landlords and tenants once the chief judge lifts the stay on evictions July 25.

Hutchinson’s lawsuit argues the company not only defied Hogan’s executive order halting evictions, but “it acted in direct contradiction to Maryland law, and imposed a ‘might-makes-right’ attitude when it illegally evicted” her and her children.

Daniel W. Whitney Jr., a Towson-based attorney who represents Hutchinson, said they are seeking a jury trial to address the company’s actions. He called the warning letter fraudulent, in part, because there are no open eviction petitions or summons against Hutchinson, but the letter claimed she was “scheduled to be evicted” prior to the closing of the courts in March.

The suit said Hutchinson suffered emotional distress due to the loss of her property and the costs to replace those items. She’s also worried about potential identity theft if anyone recovers the family’s personal documents.

Whitney said Hendersen-Webb breached its “duty of care” to Hutchinson through its “atrocious” actions. The company “had no legal right to go into her apartment and dispose of her property in the absence of a court order,” he said.

“Adults can go without things for a while, but when you’ve got kids it’s a whole ‘nother story,” Whitney said.

The incident with Hutchinson comes as residents and tenant advocates say they are bracing for a potential “tsunami” of evictions once court proceedings resume and federal coronavirus aid evaporates — both of which could happen at the end of this month.

Hutchinson said she’s worried Hendersen-Webb might be evicting other families in this manner. Meanwhile, Whitney said he’s received several calls concerning illegal evictions elsewhere, including a case in Ocean City.

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“This isn’t the wild west where ‘might-makes-right,‘” Whitney said, “and landlords can just get rid of tenants because they don’t want them anymore. There’s a judicial system and it has to be abided by.”

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